What Women Gain Through Solo Travel

The results of the 2018 United States midterm elections and the army of strong, capable, passionate women elected to offices at the state and federal level, are a powerful message for women, the country and the world. I woke up the day after election day in Paris, France and with the time change, some of the results were still being tabulated. As I saw the explosion of positive messages on social media about these women, I thought about the impact these women have already made in their communities and the future influence they will have in our country and in the world. My perspective on these wins was somewhat narrow because I left the U.S. on July 19, 2018, and made a conscious decision not to follow any political news or really any U.S. related news since leaving. At the time of the election, I had been traveling for a little over 3 months on my sabbatical, and it got me thinking about everything I had learned during my travels. I felt more empowered, confident, surer of who I was, and proud that I had gained some newfound appreciation for myself.

My sabbatical included planned visits to Spain, France, and Italy, but the remainder of the destinations were just ideas, and what ifs. Wishlist countries included Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia, India, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. The only firm date and destination in my planning was Provence, France, where I would celebrate my 50th birthday with friends and soon to be friends at a retreat on September 1st. IMG_6118Other than that, I had made a few contacts, done research, and applied for volunteer opportunities with social impact organizations. The journey was purposefully unplanned to let the discovery of the world and myself unfold naturally. My time away would be dictated on the availability of travel funds I had set aside, world events, and my health.

As I prepared for my take-off, the list of to-do’s was quite intimidating. I had to quit my job because they didn’t offer long term sabbaticals outside of FMLA, sell my house, come to an agreement with my husband about a separation, say goodbyes to my 23 year old daughter, friends and family, sell or give away many of my possessions, and prepare mentally for what I was about to do; travel internationally by myself, on a relatively low budget, with a limited plan of where I would go, how I would get there or where I would stay for as many months as my allocated amount of money would last. Thankfully as a middle-aged professional, my travels would be a bit more comfortable than the 21-year-old heading out with a backpack, a Eurail pass, and hostels as the main form of accommodation. But nevertheless, vacations abroad are nothing like what I was about to experience. 

When people hear about my journey, the most common reaction or word they use is how brave I am, also how envious they are for doing what I am doing. I have always thought of myself as a fierce woman, highly resilient to change and challenges, and eager to step into new environments. But I am not a wildly adventurous person. I don’t partake in adrenaline-pumping activities and I would never jump without fully assessing the situation, cost/benefit analyses are my expertise. I think that is why I struggled when people said that I was brave for traveling by myself. Making the decision to undertake this journey was a tough decision, and had a significant impact on many people in my life. It was not a decision that I entered into lightly and I knew it would take strength, perseverance, courage, and resilience to get the most out of my time away. Perhaps bravery didn’t enter into my vocabulary at the time because I knew I had to take this journey and I had to take more than a month or two to really uncover the hidden parts of myself that were holding me back in life.

I had some early learnings during my travels that you typically do not experience on a one or two week vacation. Figuring out your next destination and how you are going to get there are big endeavors in and of themselves, but then when you finally arrive, usually at a train station in an unknown city, you are faced with the task of finding the place where you are staying and in some cases, getting a hold of the host to let you in. After settling in, you have to navigate the city and plan what you are going to see and do. All of the places I visited were new to me, some new countries entirely and some new cities within countries that I had visited multiple times. But for me, it was not just about seeing new things. Before leaving, I set an intention that my time away would not only be focused on exploring new destinations around the world but investing the time, energy and purpose in deep self-observation and discovery about myself. I also intentionally canceled my Netflix and Amazon Prime accounts. I was not going to spend time away only be lured into binge-watching the latest shows. I made a commitment to daily meditation and reflection, and it was in these times I uncovered patterns and obstacles that had not been present in my thoughts during my regular life at home. Sometimes during my travels, my thoughts, fears, emotions overcame me and caused me to sit and reflect right then and there. Oftentimes on a bench in a crowded, hectic square filled with people.

I find peace in journaling but carrying around journals is a bit cumbersome during travel so I have depended on keeping my thoughts in one ongoing document on my computer that I labeled, My WIP Stories. I have been sharing some of these stories through a website that I created before I left, called Wandering in Possibility. I am not blogging about travel per se, such as where I’m staying, what I recommend doing or seeing in my destination, but rather I have shared experiences, life “stuff” that is coming up for me during this time of renewal, or poems that spontaneously emerge through my travels. I abbreviated Wandering in Possibility, WIP, in my writing and digital photo library and one day I noticed that WIP is the abbreviation for Work in Progress or Process in Lean and Agile methodologies. In these settings, you limit WIP to eliminate roadblocks in the development process. My time wandering was a purposeful limiter to the activities that would generally fill my day at home. Running from one thing to another, ensuring that my family was well taken care of, seeing to my professional duties each day, making sure I was eating right and exercising. Like so many women, I had many balls up in the air at once, and for once in my life, I was letting those balls fall right to ground and focusing on one thing – my journey.

I share some of my stories through my WIP digital journal with the hopes of inspiring other women to take a chance and venture out on their own, even if it is only to another state within the United States or a solo trip in their own state. Traveling alone has made me appreciate my strengths like being able to navigate easily through train stations, roads, neighborhoods and crowded attractions.

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As great as a navigation tool that Google Maps is, there were many times when looking at the directions made absolutely no sense or caught me off guard. I took this screenshot in Venice as I wandered through the tiny streets trying to find a specific restaurant. I quickly came around a corner and nearly fell into the water. I had not even noticed the boat symbol on the screen. Remember, no app can replace good ol’ common sense. 

I am grateful for my sense of adventure to go places I have never been, stay in people’s homes and neighborhoods that are far different from the comfortable places I am used to in my home state of Colorado. Learning to enjoy eating alone came quickly to me during my travels. I found that sitting in a cafe or restaurant without my face in my phone was a delightful way to watch people, absorb the beautiful scenery around me and mindfully taste the wonderful new flavors I was experiencing.

Traveling alone does not equate to being lonely. Being alone is purely a state of being, whereas loneliness is an emotional response to a specific circumstance. I loved this lone tree growing out of a rock in the Ligurian Sea in Portofino, Italy. 

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There were times during my travels that I longed to be experiencing what I was seeing and feeling with someone close to me. I did get lonely on occasion, but thankfully not very often. I found immense comfort in being alone, being still, silent and reflective. What was revealed to me during those times, would have been very hard to unearth with my regular distractions of home. I met so many wonderful people along my travels. Other solo women travelers, families traveling together, couples from far away countries that invited me to visit them and the spectacular hosts I met during more than 20 Airbnbs where I stayed. The greatest gift of my travels was being in charge only of myself. Deciding where I wanted to go, what I wanted to see, what I wanted to eat and where I felt like heading to next. As women, we are natural caretakers and having the opportunity to listen to ourselves, tend to our needs, do something nice for ourselves, is truly a blessing.

I traveled for over four months as a solo traveler with only a few weeks either traveling with people like my week in Provence in September amongst friends and then during my housesitting time in the south of France in October where I had the pleasure of spending time with a delightful family. When I first started traveling, I went at a breakneck pace and only stayed in each city for 3 or 4 days. It was the hottest part of the summer, and the heat, coupled with the stress of planning my destinations took a huge toll on me. By early September, I was burned out and realized that I needed to give myself some room to breathe. This was a turning point in my travels and the point when I decided to take more time for rest, meditation and deep reflection. IMG_6546When I slowed down, I started to really enjoy just being in a new city, sitting in cafes, riding ferries to take in the views from the Mediterranean Sea, packing a picnic and spending the day at a beautiful park like I did in Turin, Italy and digging into my inner thoughts and reflecting on my life. Housesitting was a phenomenal opportunity to put aside the tourist and traveler mentality for a while and visit markets, cook my own meals, ride bicycles and enjoy basking in the sun by a pool. I got caught up on sleep and felt nourished from the inside out.

In mid-November, after spending three weeks in Paris, I left the easy-to-travel confines of Europe and headed to East Africa. During my layover in the Frankfurt airport, I decided to spend part of my 10-hour layout in a yoga/meditation room that was located in another terminal. To get there, I had to pass through a Passport Checkpoint, my first one since arriving in Madrid, Spain on July 20, 2018. The Passport Control agent asked me where I had been since July. As I proceeded to tell her about my travels over the last 4 plus months, she got a very stern look on her face. I couldn’t figure out what the problem was and when I told her I was flying to Mozambique and staying in East Africa for a while, she gently reminded me not to come back for quite a while. I thought  – how rude is that, but then later I realized that I had been in violation of EU visa requirements. U.S. and Canadien citizens can stay in the EU for up to 90 days in a 180 day period without a visa. When I arrived in Frankfurt, I had already been in the EU for more than 130 days. I had completely forgotten about this requirement when I extended my stay in France after confirming my travels in Mozambique and Tanzania. Prior to leaving on my travels, I documented all the visa requirements of the countries I was hoping to visit. Trying to get my visas for Mozambique and Tanzania while I was in France, was overwhelming and definitely clouded my memory of looking at the EU requirements some 5 months earlier. Luckily the agent at the Passport Control desk in Frankfurt didn’t deport me!

I arrived in Mozambique at the end of November and was spending close to 2 weeks on Mozambique Island. Flying to Africa would mark the end of my solo travel for the time being and bring new experiences of being in Africa. The only African country I have previously traveled to is Morocco and arriving in East Africa was a wondrous adventure. I would be spending my time with a friend from Colorado that is a marine archeologist with the National Park Service, a number of his NPS colleagues, and numerous individuals traveling from the U.S., Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania as well as local Mozambiquians all gathering to work on the Slave Wrecks Project. This was an incredible experience for me as someone who has zero knowledge about this work and had just spent the last 4 months traveling independently around Europe. I not only gained knowledge during my time in Mozambique, but I also had the pleasure of watching and interacting with some of the most highly trained, skilled, and passionate people I have ever met. I could have never made something like this happen on my own and it taught me to be open to telling others about your desire to travel and explore the world – who knows what will land on your lap. While in Mozambique my friend Dave taught me a valuable lesson for traveling and for life – “say yes to everything”!

After my time on Mozambique Island, I flew from Nampula, Mozambique to Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania, to begin a 7-day safari. Going on safari was one of the “must do’s” during my journey and this experience did not disappoint. Exploring some of Tanzania’s most treasured parks alongside a treasured soul, my guide Robert, was the perfect climax to my travel story. Oftentimes in a story, the climax occurs when a character finds a treasure or has a major conflict resolved. For me, my safari seemed to be the perfect end to my adventure. I was captivated every day by what I was seeing and learning, I was mesmerized by the beauty of the animals, the landscapes, the sunsets, and the sunrises. I had reached my destination. After traveling nearly 18,000 miles in five months, I had found what I was looking for and I was ready for my 9,000-mile journey home. I had a three-month volunteer opportunity scheduled in Tanzania 2 weeks after the end of my safari, but my heart, gut, and soul were telling me my journey had come to a close. My travels taught me a valuable lesson, I don’t need to be a superwoman, and the mask and possibly the cape that I had been carting around for years was extra baggage that was no longer necessary. I need to respect what I accomplished, relish in the beautiful destinations I experienced and be thankful for what was revealed to me along the way.

And so, I returned home at the end of December 2018, a few days before Christmas, tired and a bit in shock. I have been home for close to six weeks as I finish writing this today. I am preparing for this new life that lies ahead of me. I have started to look for a job and am looking forward to being able to move into a new home soon. I am so grateful for my travels. Thankful for what unfolded. Appreciate of the support I received from friends all over the globe. Hopeful for what I’ll be able to accomplish knowing what I now know. Eager to follow other women’s similar journeys.